Henry Longfellow once said, “Music is the universal language of all mankind.” However poetic, this farcical statement is, I believe, profoundly untrue. Since the birth of their discipline, ethnomusicologists have had to fight against such opinion, which could be looked at as being the science’s root. Music, an ethnomusicologist argues, is not something to be simply heard, but also experienced within its wider context with the vast array of connotations, meanings and intentions that every social group associates it with differently 1.
Nettl discusses the idea of “universals” as an anachronistic, 19th century way of thinking, but concedes that, in other sciences, it is still a popular viewpoint. However, he is firm in the belief that music can definitively not be seen in this way: “Chomsky showed the underlying structure of all human languages and Lévi-Strauss asserted that all mythologies are basically alike… They may have been right, but… ethnomusicologists point out that music is indeed not a musical language 2a.” If music and its relationship to the rest of culture is so paramount 2b, how can, for example, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s spiritually-saturated qawwalis possibly be neatly classified as one and the same as One Direction’s next big hit? They cannot, and most people, when they stop and think about it, would agree. There’s a reason why (most) of us in the UK don’t go around listening to qawwali music on our iPods: it simply isn’t connected to our culture, it is unrelatable to our experiences. And if I sat (an average) fellow white Brit down and played them some of this music, they wouldn’t enjoy it, certainly less be able to connect or understand it. And I wouldn’t hold it against them, how could they appreciate something that comes from a place so unfamiliar? “All people must be able to placetheir music firmly in the context of the totality of their beliefs, experiences and activities. Without such ties, music cannot exist underlinings mine 3”.
So, if music itself carries such cultural significance, then the instruments it emanates from surely do too. Described by Dournon as “a tool that both produces sound and carries meaning 4”, musical instruments are unique products of the cultures they originate from, having been moulded by generation to generation to what it is today, affected by these years’ beliefs and traditions. Every component of it has its own history and, collectively, they can hold deeply-rooted significance that reveal so much about a community. Organology The challenge to analyse and categorise the innumerable amount of the world’s instruments has been attempted by various peoples through the science now referred to as organology. Most scholars ‘in-the-know’ use the Sachs-Hornbostel system which, evolving from an earlier system by one Victor-Charles Mahillon (which incidentally evolved from a much earlier system found in a Sanskrit Hindu text, which I will touch upon momentarily), groups instruments into 5 general, but distinct, categories. These categories are then further subdivided based on increasing specificities found in a particular instruments 5. Though this system succeeds at grouping Earth’s extensive variety of instruments by physical attributes, this in turn raises issues which have yet to be resolved (Nettl 1964; Mantle 1971 et al.).
Musical instruments and their ancestry are intertwined, therefore merely looking at one’s aesthetic properties cannot provide the inquirer with sufficient information, especially when these have been identified and stratified by foreign academics, whose own innate preconceptions are inevitably tied into the strata. Dawe believed that organology’s primary goal is not simply about “classifying instruments, but about understanding what they can teach us about the role of music in people’s lives 6.” One comprehensive, universal system cannot exist for this reason. A more local one must be used to uncover a culture’s influence. It was the ancient Chinese who were the first to invent a classification system for their instruments, over 4000 years ago 7. The ‘pa yin’ (lit. “eight sounds”) is based on what material is used to create the sound: wood, metal, gourd etc. Though we westerners might associate these materials with a specific sound, their system was more than that.
Each physical material had strong connections with both the cardinal directions and yearly seasons, used in ritual dance and ceremonial court music. These associations were an indispensable part of the Chinese concepts of life and nature, and today provide “a reminder that studying musical instruments is an excellent window on a culture 8.” Then, a millennia or so later, Hindu bhagat Bharat Muni outlined a 4-group system based on how sound is produced: wind, strings, membranes or the body itself 10a – very similar to Mahillon’s idea in the late 19th century. His writings, the Natyashastra, also describe the ‘Rasa theory’, which can explained as the belief that entertainment is but a secondary objective of music, that the primary goal is to take the audience into an otherworldly state where he “experiences the essence of his own consciousness 9.” This still widely held notion unearths so much more that is bubbling away beneath India’s musical surface – its deep spirituality and meaning. Sachs-Hornbostel’s classification of the sarod, 321.322, might tell us a great deal about it (a lute-like, necked composite chordophone, its strings parallel with its box-shaped resonator’s surface), but tells us nothing of its relationship to its performer or its culture. The Daff in the Islamic world In his fundamental text, The Ethnomusicologist (1971), Mantle Hood lists some of the Sachs-Hornbostel system’s failings – namely, its inability to provide detailed information on: internal structure of instruments, techniques of performance, musical functions, decoration and “socio-cultural considerations” 10b.
According to him, these all “comprise an invaluable part of the unique information represented by a musical instrument 10c.” However, Hood only raises the issues, saying, “I hope that tomorrow’s researcher will be inspired to a more systematic and more exhaustive pursuit of this problem 10d”. Doubleday (1999) investigated the “strong association” between the frame drum of the Middle East (daff/ d?ireh/ t?r etc.) and women. She says such a relationship is remarkable given the fact that in surrounding regions (and arguably near-universally), the drum is a male-dominated tradition, and because of “the highly contested status of both music and women in Middle Eastern, Muslim cultures, an instrument especially played by women offers a rich field for the investigation of gender within music 11a.
” The idea of the frame drum being a feminine instrument stretches back a long way. It is mentioned regularly in the hadith, which lists its use in entertainment, celebrations, religious festivities, battles and poetry 12. One such instance can be found in Jami’ at-Tirmidhi, which recalls a young slave girl who played the daff for Muhammad upon his return from an expedition 13.
In earlier still Arabian history, daffs have been recorded as being played by the ‘qayna’ – female slave musicians – whose illustrious abilities to “provoke disruptive passions” in their powerful audiences (caliphs) are well-documented 14. But, despite the history and unarguable link between the drum and the female sex, Hassan (1980) found that women had little exclusivity over the instrument, much less any other. Male superiority is rife in this majority-Muslim window of the world, also explaining the aspect of privacy when it is now performed (Morris & Rihtman, 1984). In her text, Doubleday stresses this phenomenon is deeply correlated to Middle Eastern culture’s power dynamics between male and female.
She looks back to Muhammad’s time and the battle of Uhud, where the women of his enemy were said to have drummed “war songs and laments for the slain” as well as “offers of sexual rewards to the victorious” 11b. These portrayals of weaker, sexual, daff-playing women give profound insight into how the instrument has come to be known as a female instrument, and also, to an extent, how women are still seen in general today. R. B. Qureshi also found courtesan performance was a central theme in female musical performance in this area of the world 15. Islam, and its rapid spread across the Middle East in its early years, undoubtedly affected said region’s musical traditions. Conservative Islam is immovably against music 16, and as a result, in countries that hold to this belief, music can have nothing but negative connotations. The only exception to this rule is: the daff.
The hadith permit performance, solely of the daff, on just 3 occasions: at weddings, at Eid, and upon someone’s return. And though such a strict stance is untypical of the average Muslim, this surely gives the instrument a remarkable amount of status in its culture as the only one definitively authorised by Muhammad himself. When digging further into the hadiths, an even more remarkable discovery can be found: “With regard to the men of his time, none of them used to beat the daff or clap his hands, rather it was proven in al-Saheeh that he said, ‘Clapping playing the daff is for women, and Tasbeeh religious chanting; dhikr is for men,’ and he cursed women who imitate men and men who imitate women. Because singing, beating the daff and clapping the hands are actions of women, the salaf early Muslims used to call a man who did that ‘mukhannath’ effeminate 17.” This (granted from a slightly lower-regarded hadith) unequivocally ties the above unrivalled honour of the daff being ‘Islam’s only permitted instrument’ to women. These views have been proven to not be universally held, but the fact such an argument exists adds a whole other layer to the cultural background of the drum. It is females, who I think it is fair to say are usually given the shorter stick in Islam, who are here given the role of playing the daff, with men literally to be cursed if they imitate them.
Afghani women whom Doubleday came into contact with seemed to be aware of this on some level, as she recalls her daff instructor suggesting she make a vow, “linking her musical instrument with a venerable Sufi shrine which her instructor said would bring her ‘sawab’ (religious merit) 11c.” Afghani men, she also noted, were more negative to toward the drum and female musicians, “deriding it as a women’s instrument” and saying “women do not know anything about music theory 11d.” And back to the connection of female musical performance and sexuality, Doubleday found the daff was inherently associated with “Jat/ Ghorbat groups, who practise prostitution… with dancing as an erotic lure 11d.” After thousands of years of history and much highly-revered writing on the humble daff drum, it’s irrefutable that its character has been shaped by its surrounding culture and past. Our Western tambourine (from Persian daff tabira) is, physically, closely related to the daff, but its connotations are far from its Arabian cousins – exactly what Hood was talking about. Similarities in instrument don’t equal similar cultures 10c.
The ‘out-of-place’ Harmonium This essay is on musical instruments and how they are reflective and illustrative of the cultures they are used in. Most ethnomusicologists, it is fair to suggest, would wholeheartedly agree with this, certainly when it comes to those instruments which are the staples of their musical heritage: the guitar and Spain, the sitar and India, the banjo and the deep American South etc. But I would like to briefly make a case for the harmonium and its distinct lacking in this regard. The harmonium is an instrument I had not ever come across until my time in Pakistan (2016/ 17), despite its western roots. It was invented in 1842 by French instrument maker, Alexandre-François Debain, and consists of a keyboard (2-3 octaves), a set of reeds and a single blowing pedal that is pumped 18. Small, portable harmoniums were built and became very popular with western missionaries at the time; they were conveniently portable, allowing them to transport and use them local churches in lieu of church organs. Since then, it has almost all but fallen out of use in its native western Europe, but over the years, it has become a dominant force in south Asian, and in particular, Pakistani music. The harmonium’s transition from the neo-eastern church-plants to the general populace has been severely undocumented, yet still notably rocky.
The subcontinent began to warm to the instrument, recognising its convenience 19, ease to learn and natural “flow with one’s voice 20”, and it began to creep into non-Christian circles in the late 19th century. However, not everyone was happy so keen to accept a new player into their rich musical tradition. Becoming increasingly popular in qawwali, the older qawwals were unhappy that it seemed to be replacing the sarangi, qawwali’s conventional partner. Stock (2016), an active ethnomusicologist in Pakistan for over 30 years, ascribes the dislike of the harmonium to the qawwal’s belief it was too easy – “if you use a harmonium, anyone can sing qawwali!” It being a western-born instrument, it is also unable to replicate aspects of South Asian music such as the ‘meend’ (gliding from one note to another) and ‘andolan’ (subtle ornamentation) which are integral to certain ragas. By the 1920s, harmoniums were being built in India, “flooding towns and villages alike, much to the detriment of indigenous instruments 19”. As they continued to overrun India’s musical landscape, nationalist movements, seeking to diverge from the West and repair their damaged heritage, turned against the harmonium. Though I can find no corroborative evidence for this, Stock recalls a period where harmonium’s were actively taken and buried in attempts to stop them from being played 21, and from 1940 to 1971, it was outlawed on All India Radio.
Despite all this, the instrument has become the instrument of choice for accompanying most Hindustani vocal music, including the highly spiritual qawwali. The most famous qawwals, like the great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, are all harmoniumists. Upon reflection, that such established attributes of a massively important hallmark in Muslim musical culture have been completely ripped up and replaced by western, Christian-sourced substitute is phenomenal.
It has also wormed its way into Sikhism and Hinduism – “gurdwaras worldwide hire two harmonium players… to sing hymns from the holy Guru Granth Sahib 22.” It could be said that not only does the harmonium not illustrate aspects of its most active culture, it actually does the opposite. It originated from a culture so different to its current home, and entered India only to push millenniums of prior traditions out the window and replace them. Moreover, its native culture has since rejected it! How, therefore, can the poor harmonium claim to ‘illustrate aspects of the culture in which it is used’? I suppose it does, only through the troubled, unsettled history that both the instrument and the area has faced in the past 200 years. Since its conclusive welcome into Hindustani musical culture, adjustments have been made to the harmonium’s design so it can be better equipped for the music it is now regularly playing. There has been experimentation with the combining of a harmonium and swarmandal (an Indian zither-like instrument), resulting in a new instrument: the samvadini. Many south Asian-made harmoniums are now built with the ability to create drones, and just this decade a 22-microtone harmonium has been invented to allow the instrument to play any raga for the first time 23. Do these adaptations better reflect its newfound home? Absolutely.
But I believe it has a ways to go, a culture to learn, a history to soak up, before it can genuinely be seen as an extension of it. Conclusion The question I was tasked to look at here was, ‘How do musical instruments illustrate aspects of the culture in which they are used?’ This question attempts to deviate thinking of music being a universal language towards a view that all music, being supremely affected by its culture, is unique. While I don’t inherently disagree with that standpoint, I think comes close to ignoring the fact that knowledge, ideas and music are shared, now more than ever. And this growing homogeneity paradoxically creates more diversity, as we can see in the life of the harmonium. Yes, an instrument will (often) be a product of the culture it is created in, but it should not, and cannot be kept there, or our human ingenuity will soon run dry.
Bibliography1 M. Hood (1969) – Harvard Dictionary of Music2 B. Nettl (1983) – The Study of Ethnomusicology: Thirty-one Issues and Concepts2a p. 442b p. 2153 A. Merriam (1967) – Ethnomusicology of the Flathead Indians – p.
34 G. Dournon (1981) – Guide for the Collection of Traditional Musical Instruments – p. 95 J.
Stovell (2018) – The Sachs-Hornbostel: An Overview6 K. Dawe (2012) – “The Cultural Study of Musical Instruments”, in The Cultural Study of Music: A Critical Introduction, Routledge – pp. 195 – 2057 M. J. Kartomi (1990) – On Concepts and Classifications of Musical Instruments – p. 378 R. Knight (2015) – The Knight Revision of Hornbostel-Sachs: a new look at musical instrument classification – p.
3http://www2.oberlin.edu/faculty/rknight/Organology/KnightRev2015.pdf9 S. L.
Schwartz (2004) – “Rasa:Performing the Divine in India”10 M. Hood (1971) – The Ethnomusicologist10a p. 12410b pp. 127-14410c p. 13810d p. 14411 V.
Doubleday (1999) – “The Frame Drum in the Middle East: Women, Musical Instruments and Power”, in Ethnomusicology (Vol. 43, No. 1)11a p. 10111b p. 10911c pp. 117-11811d p. 11812 Grove Music Online (2001) – Daff https://doi.org/10.
1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.0705013 Imam at-Tirmidhi (864) – Jami’ at-Tirmidhi – Book 46, Hadith 369014 Al-Jahiz (c. 9th century) – Risalat al-Qiyan (trans. “Epistle on singing girls”)15 R. B. Qureshi (1997) – “The Indian Sarangi: Soundof Affect, Site of Contest”16 Al-Bayhaqi (c.
11th century) – Al-Bayhaqi – Book 10, Hadith 22217 Ibn Taymiyyah (c. 13th century) – Majmoo’ al-Fataawa – Book 11, Hadith 565-56618 B. Owen & A. Dick (2001) – Harmonium https://doi.org/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.
article.1239519 S. Marcuse (1975) – A Survey of Musical Instruments – Harmonium20 A. Mahmood* (2011) – Harmonium http://www.dostpakistan.
pk/harmonium/* I am aware of this reference’s lack of credibility, though believe its author to be an accurate portrayer of Pakistan’s general view of the harmonium.21 P. Stock (2016) – Interview with J. Stovell22 R. K. Johal (1994) – The Sacred Strings of the Sikhs https://www.
rajacademy.com/sacred-strings-of-sikhs23 P. Pinglay (2012) – Man gets patent for 22-note harmonium – Hindustan Times